In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump was all-in in the fossil fuel industry. At a 2016 rally in Charleston, West Virginia, the candidate proudly accepted endorsement from that state’s coal association and donned a helmet while mimicking coal digging. Amid roaring applause, he promised to bring coal jobs back to the fighting Appalachian coal fields.
Four years later there are fewer jobs in coal than ever before, and that enthusiasm was largely absent from the energy bad luck the Republican Party made to the American people in its four-day congress last week. Stakeholders in the Ohio Valley coal regions read the tea leaves on what another four years of a Trump administration could look like.
“Four years ago, Hillary Clinton said it was putting a lot of miners out of work, and today Joe Biden is doubling the number of hard-working Kentuckians,” said Mike Lonergan, Republican Party spokesman for Kentucky Party. “Combined with massive tax hikes, the Green New Deal, and Joe Biden’s promise to end fossil fuels, the Democrats will put every worker in the energy sector, including coal, out of work.”
Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, looks forward to another Republican term. “When one candidate and one party favor men and women who work across the Appalachian region and do what they do best – that is, mine and produce coal and natural gas – compared to the other party doing their job want to abolish? For me this is incomprehensible and un-American. ”
Dee Davis, the founder and director of the Whitesburg, Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, sees it differently. “Coal is a ship that has sailed. Someone will be in office and that person will make a policy and some people will be favored by that policy and some people will be disadvantaged. The reality, however, is that market forces are like the course of a river: they cannot be changed simply by wishful thinking. “
Amanda Woodrum of the progressive think tank Policy Matters Ohio summed up the last four years of the Trump administration’s efforts to bring back coal: “It didn’t happen, and it didn’t work, and it was false hope.”
Woodrum is also co-director of the Reimagine Appalachia project, which aims to rebuild the Appalachian region through public investments in infrastructure, clean energy and coal mine recovery. Given that the market-driven decline of the coal industry is a serious challenge for miners and their families, the plan prioritizes miners for high-paying jobs.
The government has successfully rolled back a number of Obama-era environmental regulations, including regulations on coal-fired power plants and the disposal of coal ash. It called for a cut in research funding in renewable energies and reduced fees about coal companies that are supposed to provide funds for the health care of the miners.
But President Trump’s promises to get the miners back to work have largely gone unfulfilled. According to the Brookings Institution, coal used to generate electricity continued to decline during the Trump era, declining 22 percent between 2016 and 2019. Coal employment has steadily declined since the end of the Obama years, from about 55,000 miners across the country in 2016 to about 45,000 nationwide as of July this year.
Hamilton is the one who handed Trump this infamous helmet four years ago in Charleston. He blames former President Barack Obama for these numbers. “What you are realizing here is that the damage done by the previous administration was so severe and profound that we see the consequences of it at play today, despite President Trump being a national and governor [Jim] Justice here at the West Virginia level is doing everything possible to reverse these trends. ”
Samantha Gross, director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Safety and Climate Initiative, said the pulling back on environmental regulations did not bring coal mining back because it wasn’t the regulations that primarily harmed the industry. Rather, she said it was a matter of market forces: cheap natural gas continues to adversely affect the use of coal in electricity generation.
“The problem with this is that if you really focus on ‘We are going to bring this resource back’ you are not helping these communities. [instead] They tell them their jobs are coming back, ”she said.
Policy versus identity
The discussion of energy policy was largely absent from the Republican Convention, although Trump mentioned it in his address on Thursday evening misleading“Biden has promised to end American oil, coal, shale and natural gas production and devastate the economies of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico. Millions of jobs will be lost and energy prices will rise. “
The party also found other ways to show its support for workers such as miners.
On the second night of the congress, a skillfully produced video was shown in which the hardworking worker was greeted. Over a bed of action film music, a deep-voiced narrator read: “What I could call your everyday husband, the forgotten man or the forgotten woman, the people who wake up every morning, go to work, do their job, their children and families come home , and are loyal and consistent. The people who built America. ”
Images slid by under the narrative: oil platforms plunging and rising, workers wearing hard hats, wide shots of mammoth factories glistening in the sun.
Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies said the appeal was well known. “Republicans have long supported miners, farmers and factory workers, pirated oil fields, not as economic policies but as cultural icons,” he said. “And you can say, ‘well look, he promised he would bring those jobs back and he didn’t.’ But that won’t stop a lot of people from doing it [voting for Trump.] Because it’s not about politics, it doesn’t matter if you kept your promise. It’s about who do people like me choose? “
Support for President Trump in the deep red coal fields of the Appalachians is still high: 66 percent of West Virgins and 55 percent of Kentuckians prefer Trump over his opponent. This emerges from the latest survey averages from the news agency, which is based on statistical analysis Thirty-five. (It should be noted that West Virginia is so reliably red that pollers rarely care about the state. The most recent data point is from this January, and the current number can vary widely.)
Opinions about energy and climate change are highly polarized in terms of party politics. Nationwide, 81 percent of Democrats believe climate change will harm the people of the United States, compared with just 31 percent of Republicans. Just 52 percent of Republicans believe that climate change is happening at all, according to a 2018 study by the Yale Program on Communicating Climate Change.
But attitudes towards energy and the environment are changing. The Yale program also found that even in the coal-intensive Ohio Valley, most people say the president should do more to address climate change.
“The US public continues to be more concerned about climate change,” said Gross of Brookings. “There are certainly some other politicians thinking about what a Republican stance would be on climate change, but President Trump is not. But it is an issue that the voters care about. The electorate, in a sense, leaves the party behind. “
This story is part of a series that revisits the subjects, places, and people in the new Ohio Valley ReSource book, Appalachian Fall.